Supposed Historical Epic Turns 17th Century Battles Into Fantasy
What happened to history being history and fantasy being fantasy and never the twain shall meet? Ever since Dan Brown made a few million bucks, every hack with a research assistant has recycled cheap fantasy-book plots into historical thrillers. All you have to do is replace actual necromancy, supernatural beasts, and the good-vs.-evil worldview with a secret monastic order, scandalous religious rituals, and a Christian-vs.-infidel struggle. They have whole tables set up at bookstores for these novels. Tim Willocks, a wild-haired British physician and sometime writer of biblically noirish novels about the American South, enters this dubious company with his fourth novel, The Religion. But he doesn't dive right in--he at least finds a new setting and new, if stock, cast for his creation.
The Religion is set during the 1565 siege of Malta, in which the Knights of St. John the Baptist (also called the Hospitallers, or just "The Religion"), a highly respected and fabulously wealthy order of warrior surgeons that existed from 1099-1798, fought off a massive invasion by the Ottoman Turks under Suleiman the Magnificent. Mattias Tannhauser is an iron-nerved Saxon soldier who was orphaned and kidnapped as a child by the marauding Turkish army. After 15 years as a janissary--sort of the elite Revolutionary Guard of the Ottoman Empire--he grows a conscience when asked to murder Suleiman's grandson, deserts, and sets up shop as a merchant innkeeper in Messina, Sicily.
He is charged with escorting French countess Carla la Panautier to Malta and rescuing her long-lost bastard son Orlandu before he gets killed in the melee. Along the way he falls in love with a sex-bomb Catalonian waif, nearly dies several dozen times, gains glory, then infamy, gains then loses friends, eats many incredibly satisfying meals, gets laid often, savagely kills hundreds of Turks and Christian knights alike, and manages to limp off the island with a girl and some friends by his side. No spoilers here: This is the first, the dust jacket informs, of the "Tannhauser Trilogy."
Yes, this is airport fiction about an obscure historical military conflict. What's most interesting about it is that it suggests that history is not nearly interesting enough as to be profitable when it's told straight--without sensational sex, violence, and intrigue. And surely there was sex, violence, and intrigue in the 16th century, but the way Willocks tells it--with highly sensual, grossly detailed language and utterly predictable plot twists--is just as outlandish as the story itself.
Willocks' background as a doctor and an amateur historian of arms and armor definitely comes through. He uses words like "gorget" and "pauldron" with alarming familiarity, and is fond of long, disgusting lists of bodily fluids. He describes a battlefield during a 30-page war sequence as a "fetid marinade of blood, human offal, entrails, brains, and the evacuated contents of thousands of bladders and bowels." Everyone "befouls" themselves before being savagely disemboweled, and the mechanics of mortality at the ends of various medieval weapons are discussed in excruciating detail.
You can understand a writer like Willocks, though. The past is a foreign country and, at some points, a really exotic, exciting one at that. And to make matters worse, history deals with institutions, not people, so the temptation to make up personal stories that fill the gaps is immense. It must be tough not to lapse into your own fantasy world. Too bad for Willocks that the deeper he slips into trite motifs and one-dimensional characters, the harder it becomes for him to claw his way out. In the end, The Religion cannot be appropriately called a historical novel--at least not the same kind that E.L. Doctorow or Michael Shaara used to write--but something new, different, and mediocre. How about fantasy?